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Robbing Matisse

A figure skirted the glow of the streetlights, instead choosing to adhere to the safety of the shadows where his gloved hands remained hidden in his coat pockets. It was late April, fairly warm for such a heavy coat especially below the Mason-Dixon line, but this was a place where the strangeness of such apparel would not have been questioned.
Dawn was approaching and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. would open soon, but Tyler Roberts arrived in the wee hours of the morning in order to execute his plan... or, really, to calm his nerves. He paced in front of the museum, ignoring the sidelong glances he received from the few passersby whose insomnia kept them wandering the streets. Finally the sun began to peek over the horizon and Tyler became aware that he could no longer remain in front of the museum if he did not want attract suspicion. He chose instead to take a walk for a cup of coffee, also a little warm for late April, but less conspicuous than a winter jacket. Checking his watch and realizing only a half an hour had passed, Tyler ran thick fingers through greasy hair and sat down on a nearby bench.
I could have been a football player.
There was no denying that sports would have been an easier route than the one Tyler had chosen, but he couldn’t exactly back out now. He twitched as a fly settled down on the grainy wood beside him. Looking back over his shoulder, he couldn’t help but feel like somebody was watching his every move. Once he was satisfied nobody was there, he returned to his thoughts.
Tyler sipped his coffee, set the cup on the sidewalk, pulled out a cigarette, and lit it. Something had propelled this seventeen-year-old into rebellion so severe that it had led him here, but those pieces of his past were locked away from the world. Occasionally the memories would flash across his face, and he’d cover his eyes to keep the pain from showing through in tears. When he looked up, his fingers wet from silent crying, he stood and backtracked toward the National Gallery of Art with new purpose. He left the half-empty coffee cup in the grass.
Almost as if Envy herself was lounging on the steps to the museum, Tyler’s greed heightened when the building was in sight. His pace quickened as he pounded up the steps and through the main entrance, and he was immediately drawn to the artwork by a Fauve artist named Matisse. He studied the paintings and cutouts, pretending to be interested for art’s sake while the tourists looked and passed him by... looked and passed him by... passed him by...
Nervousness was written across his face, but Tyler gathered up enough courage and marched off to a bathroom near the front of the museum, glancing over his shoulder to make sure nobody was watching him too closely.
Later, the security guards would say, “Yes, that boy... he was very suspicious, very suspicious indeed,” to cover for the neglect of their duties. For the time being, they were far too busy eating donuts and staring at girls to care about a teenager exhibiting odd behavior.
Tyler nodded hello anxiously to a middle-aged man who was washing his hands. He imagined that the man was judging him, analyzing his actions, when in reality the man hadn’t thought twice about the boy who was bringing a backpack into a bathroom stall. Tyler unzipped his backpack and pulled out a laptop which had gotten through security by some stroke of luck.
Then came the impressive feat. The seventeen-year-old from nowhere town hacked the security system and disarmed all of the alarms and cameras from the safety of bathroom stall three in the men’s room. It didn’t take much really; the government was concerned with much more pressing matters than the security of the nation’s artwork, but it was complicated nonetheless, and Tyler had cracked it in a matter of minutes from his own laptop computer.
He paused for a moment to catch his breath, immediately realizing that if he looked even a bit out of place, he would be caught. He had disabled the sensors and alarms around the artwork and replaced the live video feed with a computer-generated one he had created the night before. The next step was to empty the museum by setting off the fire alarm. With the patter of callused fingers on his keyboard there was an awful ringing echoing through the building, and Tyler returned his computer to its place in his backpack. He locked the door and climbed up on the toilet seat, preparing for the next stage of his plan.
There was the fear that when he left the bathroom there would still be people in the museum, and that the firemen and police officers would have arrived on the scene already. Reluctantly, Tyler expelled fears from his head and counted his forty-five seconds in Mississippi’s. Forty-five felt just right, just enough to make sure the place was evacuated, but it would take the firemen a few minutes to get there, so there was a three-minute window which Tyler had to find. The thing is, he was practically superhuman, so smart that he could have sat down and calculated his timing perfectly.

He didn’t.

He was too caught up in the emotion of what he was doing, and even as he hovered over the toilet seat he felt tears well up in his eyes. Matisse had been his mother’s favorite artist. That was before the drive-by shooting.

Forty-five seconds. Tyler climbed down and left the bathroom, cautiously looking around. There was not a guard to be seen, all of them outside with the visitors to escape the fire that Tyler had started. With his backpack on his shoulder and his hair soaked in sweat, he flinched beneath his winter coat and made for the Matisse gallery, alone in the museum. He had found his time window.

He had the painting he desired imprinted on his mind, the one that used to hang in the kitchen. It was from Matisse’s earlier days, before his wheelchair prevented him from achieving full potential. Carefully stepping up to it, Tyler lowered the heavy frame from the wall, feeling a bead of sweat make its way down his face. Every muscle in his body tensed against the painting, half of them desiring to keep it where it was, the other half begging to take it down.
Tyler’s worse half won. He set the frame on the floor and removed the canvas.

It’s a lot larger than I remembered. He rolled the canvas into a tube, wincing at the cracking paint. It was so huge compared to his kitchen copy that it didn’t remind him of his mother, or make those cursed tears come back. It didn’t make him feel guilty for what he was doing.
Leaping to his feet, he realized he was still counting the seconds in his head and he still had a minute and a half left, maybe a bit less. His hands didn’t shake as he stuffed the painting into his backpack and scampered back across the museum into the men’s room where he climbed up on the toilet seat.
He counted to thirty, forty, fifty, one minute, and he heard the front doors opening. Tyler stepped cautiously to the tile floor, breathing heavy. In his mind’s eye he envisioned himself getting caught and arrested. What were the penalties for permanently damaging art beyond repair? Death probably, or at least that’s what Tyler figured in his panic. It was time to make his move. He gulped air to calm his aching chest. Leaving the bathroom, he came face to face with a fireman whose expression was startled to say the least.
“What the heck are you still doing in the building?” His demeanor was grisly but he couldn’t harm a fly, and Tyler saw that immediately. His heart rate slowed down just a bit.
“I was in the bathroom when the alarm went off,” he told the fireman, trying desperately to hide his anxiety. “I didn’t know what to do, so I just stayed there until I heard you guys coming.” He cursed his voice for shaking.
“Whenever you hear the alarm go off, you have to get out of the building, understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Tyler answered.
Under his breath the fireman mumbled, “I thought they taught kids that in the kindergarten...”
The exchange was short, and the fireman led Tyler out the main entrance and discarded him like garbage. There was a small group of people still gathered on the street, looking for some sort of drama that would certainly ensue from a false fire alarm, and Tyler joined them for a few moments, doing his best to disappear. Once he was sure he was finally safe, he trotted away from the museum, heading toward his Honda Civic, gray, which was parked on the other side of town. It would take only a few minutes for the fireman to find the empty frame and realize he had been fooled by a seventeen-year-old boy.
That one was for you, Mama.
As he pulled out of the mostly empty parking lot, Tyler could almost see his mother smiling down on him.





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